Age-old cities

Paris.

Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits  is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo,  Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du PatrimoineLe Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul

The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts  but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.

Mosul

The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.

Mosul
Mosul

Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.

One  of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.

Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.

As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.

Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

Aleppo

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.

Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,

…and up the ramp to the Citadel.

This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.

The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I  found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.

Leptis Magna

Arch of Septimius Severus              

The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of  an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.

The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.

Palmyra

Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.

Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *

 

 

Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.

One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.

This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015). 

Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment. The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life. A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.

He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.

The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.

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The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.

For updates on the current situations in these regions, follow: @AinSyria ‏ and @AinIraq

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*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok. 

 

 

 


 

Musee de la Romanite, Nimes

I’ve been looking forward to the snazzy new Roman museum in Nimes for as long as I’ve known it was going to be a thing. It opened in early June so on my latest little trip, to Arles, I made a point of heading to Nimes to take a look.
The French rail company SNCF earned my everlasting enmity by cancelling my train, meaning that I arrived in Nimes a full 2 hours later than I should have, so my time was a bit more restricted than I would have liked and I actually ended up having to charge round the last bit in order to get back to the station in time to catch my train back to Arles (of which, more later).

Anyway, here’s the new Musee de la Romanite in all its glory.


I read that the design, by architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, was, in part inspired by the idea of the fabric of the toga, with ripples and folds of glass panels reflecting the light and the shade, and bringing movement  and interest to what could be a boring, bland glass-box exterior.
From the inside, these panels act as frames for the views,

including the highlight view of Nimes’ 20,000 seat Amphitheatre.

I enjoy the visible engineering on the inside (see also the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris).

A the entrance, the museum begins with a spiral up to the pre-Roman Gaul collection.

The museum has lots of small-ish spaces and several bigger spaces and I must admit that I found it a little bit confusing trying to work out which space to go into next in order to follow the galleries more or less chronologically.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, it’s just that I did have a few “where next?” moments, although these might just have been on account of my eagerness to see the things that I was glimpsing through the entrance-ways between the rooms. I can’t say that that spoiled the visit but I did have to hurry at the end when I discovered that I’d missed out a whole gallery! Luckily it was a small gallery so I just about had time to have a look before running off.

There are a few signs that seem to be par for the course with newly opened exhibition spaces. That sense of things being not quite finished in time for the scheduled opening. Some of the labels were clearly temporary.

There may have been the odd balustrade missing. Certainly, a proper rail would be better than ropes here.

Some of the spaces between furniture are too narrow. I saw a man with a pretty normal-sized pushchair unable to get past a bench. There was an alternative way around but I do think that, in a brand new building, either the gap should be wide enough (for a wheelchair actually) or there should be no gap at all and we all just go the other way. TBH, if they just moved the bench, that’s problem solved.

The staircase down to the lower ground floor temporary exhibition gallery is pretty bleak, like those staircases you have to go down when you’re boarding a flight, grey, lifeless, empty. It could do with a few images or something, to liven it up a bit.

But that’s the niggles out of the way and I think that all of these things are just tweaks to be made as the new museum beds in. Now for some of the cool stuff.

The building.

As I said above, I do like the design. It’s modern but not lary or obnoxious. Due to the evil fiends at SNCF, I really didn’t have enough time to investigate all of the spaces; there is a garden somewhere (on the roof?) and the expected cafes and a shop. This isn’t a disaster for me as it gives me more aspects of the museum to discover when I revisit. I will be revisiting.

Models.

Some people apparently think that models in museums are cheesy. I am not one of those people. There were models of the landscape, of the city, of individual structures, of types of artefacts.
I like this landscape model onto which the development of the city and its changing layout are projected. It’s not a complicated idea but it really helps to see the Roman city in its landscape context.

Interactive stuff 😀

Museums are, inevitably, full of stuff that must not be touched, but I’m fond of museums that also incorporate some stuff that you can touch to your heart’s delight.
Best one? For me, unsurprisingly, Roman games 😀😀

Click the link and you can see me winning with walnuts.
The Nut Game

Films 😀

The museum has a range of films about aspects of the collection and about the conservation of particular objects. My favourite was the one about quarrying 😀, which demonstrated how Roman quarrymen (often slave or convict labour) removed blocks of stone from the quarry face using hand tools and wedges.

Context. 😀

There’s a definite emphasis on placing objects and architectural elements into their proper contexts. Where did they come from? Where were they found? Which buildings are they associated with? How were they used? The models and films really help with this, moving the artefacts from being just stuff in display cases to actually being part of everyday life in the Roman town.

Despite being big and expensive-looking, the Musee de la Romanite feels like a local museum. I got the impression that quite a few of the visitors were locals, as I kept hearing exclamations of recognition from people looking at artefacts, particularly in relation to key local landmarks like Maison Carrée and the Temple of Diana. People did seem genuinely interested. There were a lot of people watching that quarrying film, maybe, in part, because it related directly to the restoration of the Maison Carrée.

What else? Oh yeah, artefacts 😀

This post is getting too long so you’ll have to wait until the next one for the artefacts but I’ll just whet your appetite with a few. Suffice it to say that the museum takes in a wide range of object types; building material; pottery; metalwork; statues; glassware; mosaics; the lot.

Yasss 😀

So, yeah, SNCF.

Having charged round the last bits of the museum and, literally, run to the station, I found that my train back to Arles was delayed by an hour.

*shakes fist and calls down the curses of the gods*.

museedelaromanite.fr 

The ancient dead speak

Last weekend, me and my fellow explorer Craig, visited an exhibition that we’ve been looking forward to for a while. At the Museum of London Docklands, ‘Roman Dead‘.

This exhibition tells the stories of some of the people of Roman London, as seen through the evidence of their mortal remains, and of the funerary practices and methods of commemoration used by Roman Londoners. Literary evidence tells us that the ancient burial grounds of Londinium began to be discovered at least as early as the 1570s as John Stowe writes, in his A Survey of London in 1598, that as the ground around Spitalfields was being broken up for clay, the workers discovered cinerary urns (pots used to hold the ashes of people who were cremated), the cremated  bones and other remains of earlier Londoners.

This burial group, dating to 60-200CE, was found at Bishopsgate. The large glass jar would have held the cremated remains (in the tray in front), with a samian cup used as a lid.

The smaller glass jars may have been used to hold oils and perfumes used in the funerary rites or offerings to the gods.

I was interested to see the map of known burial grounds around Londinium (in red), particularly the two on the Southwark islands.

The burial grounds were situated just outside the city limits to avoid the pollution of the living by the dead and archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a wide range of funerary practices carried out by the people of London. The exhibitions includes evidence of cremations and inhumations (burials), a range of grave goods, buried with the deceased, and evidence of some more unusual practices. For example, the skeletal remains of a woman whose skull was removed, after death and possibly much later, after the body had decomposed, and placed on top of her pelvis.

As it is today, so it was in Roman London. We see people from all over the Roman world; from Britain and all parts of mainland Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa, and they all came to, or travelled through Londinium. Some of them died here. Some of these different funerary practices may have been influenced by people’s different areas of origin, by changing tastes and even by changing religions, but some perhaps also by the desire to ‘do what Granddad would have wanted’, possibly harking back to older tribal or cultural traditions not current in Roman Britain but which, in the face of death, felt to surviving family members or friends like the right thing to do.

The objects in the exhibition work around the people in the exhibition. Well, the remains of the people anyway. As well as cremated remains, on display are the skeletal remains of 28 individuals. With funerary collections, I particularly like to see the whole assemblege, or as much as possible of it, displayed together, if possible reassembled as it was in the ground. I think that seeing all of the objects together with the remains can tell us something about the people themselves, but also about their loved ones, their friends, the people who arranged and carried out the funeral rites. We can’t see the remains exactly as those people saw them at the point of burial, but it’s the closest that we can get.

So here are a few of the grave goods found:

The centrepiece of exhibition is this well preserved stone sarcophagus found last year near Harper Road in Southwark.

Stone sarcophagi are rare in London, this is only the third one found, so it’s a big deal. Most people buried in Roman London would have been buried in wooden caskets or possibly just laid in the ground wrapped in a shroud, so the lady interred here, and her family, must have been quite wealthy to be able to afford such a burial. This is the first time that the sarcophagus has been shown and I was struck by how big it is. It’s not overly wide, but it did look really long.

In the accompanying film archaeologists, conservation experts and one of the curators talk us through the discovery, recovery, investigation and conservation of the sarcophagus. When it was discovered, the archaeologists could see that it was badly cracked so it wasn’t excavated onsite. Instead a wooden frame was constructed around it, holding it firmly together and allowing it to be lifted out of the ground by crane, still filled with earth that had accumulated in it, and taken to the lab to be excavated in more controlled conditions. The breaks int he stone are very visible, even after conservation.

In the lab the remains of the occupant and a few fragments of the grave goods were found, already disturbed by grave robbers. There’s no way to know all of the objects that the lady was buried with, but the few pieces that remain include an engraved intaglio, probably from a finger-ring, and a tiny fragment of gold, possibly the remains of an earring.

The object that I think amazed me the most was this:

It may not look like much at first, just a rough plank of wood. And so it is, but it has been reused as the base of a wooden coffin. Close inspection reveals some marks left on the wood. The imprints left by the body.

The marks left by the knees.

And by the ribs.

This, for me, was the object that really made me go “Wow!”. The dead really do leave a lasting impression.

The Roman Dead exhibition is at Museum of London Docklands until 28th October 2018 and it’s free to visit. Yes! Free!

 

 

Le Plan de Rome

It’s Rome, but petite.

In a dimly-lit room in the University of Caen is an expression of one man’s obsession. Le Plan de Rome, built by the French Architect Paul Bigot.

The Plan de Rome is model, an 11x6m three-dimensional terrain-map of the city of Rome in the 4th century, the time of the Emperor Constantine. Made from painted plaster, the model is, in fact, made up of 104 individual models at 1/400 scale.

Bigot began his model in the early 20th century, as a 3D plan of the Circus Maximums and then, in order to provide scale for his initial model, he began modelling the surrounding urban area, eventually building a model of about 3/5ths of the city.

The Caen model was shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1937 and was subsequently used for teaching and for public talks, but it gradually suffered due to neglect. Interest in the model was revived during the 1980s and it was conserved and redisplayed at the Université de Caen Normandie in the 1990s.

My visit to Caen coincided with the Student’s Carnival, so scenes of mayhem, carnage and passed-out-drunk-in-the-street Pikachus were the order of the day, but I was able to slip into Building F of Campus 1 to take a look at the Plan. Although it is possible to see it from the ground floor, the best view is from the first floor landing.

During his life, Bigot actually built four versions of the Plan but only two survive. Of the other two models, one previously located in the Sorbonne in Paris was damaged during the second world war and subsequently destroyed during the student riots of May 1968. The other model, made for a 1913 exhibition in Philadelphia has disappeared. The other surviving model is in the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels. It has a little more colour that the Caen model.

A more recent development has been the development, by the University, of a virtual model of the Plan, allowing visitors to experience a 3d fly thought of the streets of the 4th century city.

Site models can sometimes seem a bit cheesy and old-fashioned, especially when pitted against modern virtual reality, but I actually like a good model. The Plan de Rome gives a fly-over view of the ancient city and we can get a sense of the narrow, crowded streets filled with buildings; and the juxtapositions of the mundane side-by-side with the monumental. I wasn’t able to see that when I was there, as it’s only on certain days, but there are bits of it online here and there and it looks good. An opportunity to move from the bird’s eye down to street level.

The Plan is available to view from the upper corridor whenever the building is open (I guess) but it’d be worth looking out for a ‘tour’ and virtual fly-through if you happen to be in Caen. Details and dates are on the website.

http://www.unicaen.fr/cireve/rome/index.php

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plan_de_Rome#Les_quatre_versions_du_Plan_de_Rome

Saintes Day

This is a little look at a whirlwind day out in Saintes, with lots and lots of Romans. After an early start from Bordeaux, I arrived in Saintes at about 9am and set about looking for some of the remains of the Roman town, Mediolanum Santonum.

Stage 1: The arch. On its own.

The Arch of Germanicus, dating from 18-19 CE,  originally stood at the end of the bridge across the Charente River, marking the entry to the city. Now it’s on its own on a stretch of embankment near the Tourist Information Office.

The inscription tells us about the donor, a wealthy citizen of Mediolanum Santonum by the name of C. Julius Rufus. He seems to have been a pretty important man, locally at least, and the inscription lists his lineage to four generations: ‘Caius Julius Rufus, son of Caius Julius Otuaneunus, grandson of Caius Julius Gedemo, great-grandson of Epotsovirid(i)us’, his position in society: ‘priest of Rome and of Augustus at the altar at Confluens’, and his title: ‘prefect of works’.* He paid for the construction of the arch in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus. 

Looking rather festive on my visit, the arch we see today is actually a reconstruction. It was dismantled in the 19th century when the old bridge was demolished but later restored in its present location.

Stage 2: The city wall. Mind your step.

As with many Roman cities, the turbulence of the third century prompted the building of additional fortifications and there is a short stretch of the city wall remaining in-situ.

Now, I quite like France, but there’s one thing in particular that I really really hate about France. Dog-shit. There’s dog-shit everywhere. No-one cleans up after their dog. This means that some patches of grass are an absolute minefield (shitfield?), this one included. After weighing up the odds, I decided that I wasn’t going to risk it. The combination of sloping ground, lots of rain making slippery grass and naughty inconsiderate dog owners made this particular patch of grass no-woman’s land (seriously, there was shit everywhere). I stayed up on the pavement and took what pictures I could from there.

But you can still see the large, well-shaped stone blocks that the wall was built from. There are a few bits of reused stone that I can see amongst the rectangular blocks which indicates that by the time the wall was built, older buildings, shrines and memorials were considered expendable.

Stage 3: The amphitheatre. A hidden gem.

Heading up the hill, cross the main road near the bus stops, turn right and then left up a residential street, walk along a bit, turn left and…the surprise of seeing the entrance to an enormous amphitheatre was not at all dulled by the fact that I was actually looking for an enormous amphitheatre.

And it is enormous, originally seating about 12,000-15,000 spectators (although possibly up to 20,000) and with all the features expected of a well appointed 1st century entertainment venue. Built in 40-50 AD, construction began under Tiberius and was completed under Claudius, this is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in France. It’s set in a natural bowl-shaped valley and the seating (cavae) takes advantage of the natural slopes most of the way round.

From the ticket office, you can walk most of the way round the outside where the upper levels of seating would have been. A lot of the original seating had gone and it looks like some of the stonework is actually modern concrete, but it give a good impression of how the seating looked. You can walk up the steps of some of the vomitoria to get the views over the arena.

The two ends of the amphitheatre still have the remains of two striking features. At the east end, the East Gate.

This is the main entrance facing the town and processions (pompa) would make their way up from the town to the amphitheatre, entering through this gate. This is the way by which victorious gladiators would also leave the amphitheatre, hence it’s alternative name, Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of the Living’.

Opposite the east gate is the dark and slightly intimidating Porta Libitinensis, ‘the Gate of the Dead’. This where the bodies of vanquished gladiators were carried out of the arena.

When I visit some types of Roman site; bathhouses, forums, paved streets and amphitheatres, I’m always on the lookout for the remains of Roman games. Sometimes, etched into the stone paving, you can see gaming boards for such games as ludus duodecim scriptorum and Nine Men’s Morris. I did take the time to look along all the remaining seating, but the only one I found was this not-so-ancient one…

Stage 4: The bathhouse. Just a little bit.

Ten minute’s walk from the amphitheatre, on a corner just outside the cemetery that’s just up the road from the church of St. Vivien are the remains of the Thermal Baths of St Saloine.

These baths dated from the second half of the first century, during a second phase of development in Mediolanum Santonum, and were abandoned as the city contracted in the fourth century. The baths were fed by the aqueduct which brought water from as far away as Font-Morillon (in the village of Fontcouverte).

There isn’t a huge amount of it left but it is still possible to identify the caldarium (hot room),

with its retaining wall, with these large niches.

A few other wall lines have also been identified however, most of the building has been destroyed, either used as a quarry or in the later uses of the site, which was converted into a church and cemetery.

Stage 5: The museum. Small but perfectly formed.

Back towards the Arch of Germanicus and, next door to the tourist information office is the Musee Archeologique de Saintes. The entrance fee is included in the ticket price for the amphitheatre. Bargain!

It’s a wee little museum, just one room, but every case is a winner. I was going to post a few images here but there are so many very cool things to share that this post is in danger of becoming an epic, so I’ve decided to add those as a supplementary post.  Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite.

So on a Roman level, Saintes was a bit of a success. As well as all these brilliant sites to visit, I also spotted random bits of suspiciously Roman-looking stonework, reused here and there in walls and the like.

I also had the most fantastic cappuccino ever. Not only did it look like a work of Spiderman-influenced art, it also tasted fantastic and wasn’t overly milky. Yum yum, and thank you Thes et Cafes, my recommendation for sustenance and fortification in Saintes.

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The Office de Tourisme is a good source of information about what to see and do in and around Saintes. And for the archaeology, the Société d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de la Charente-Maritime .

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Germanicus

Rome in Africa: Africa in Rome – The writing on the wall (and the floor and in the street…)

It has often been said that Romans had, and inspired, ‘the epigraphic habit‘. Put (very) simply, they liked to write stuff down. They wrote on scrolls and books, on buildings, in mosaics, on memorials and dedications, on personal objects and on public monuments.

It’s debatable how many people would have been able to read all of this writing but things like personal and place names, and simple phrases of the ‘this is mine’ and ‘I made this’ variety may have been recognizable to many people who may otherwise be considered illiterate*.

To be in a place and see its name inscribed is great. Spending time in North Africa with, often, Arabic overtones to everyday culture, it can be a bit too easy to forget that you are not, in fact, in the Middle East (I’ve heard North African countries referred to as ‘Middle Eastern’ on a surprising number of occasions). So, just to remind us all of where we are…

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This is Africa. OK?

And this one names one of the specific Roman provinces of Africa,

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‘PROVINCIAE NUMIDIAE’. Numidia.

Now that we’ve got the straight, let’s get a bit more specific. Many of the North African cities enjoyed high status. Some were veteran colonies or trade hubs which prospered because of the many trading opportunities available, and several were treated to visits from one Emperor or another.  Never known for their reticence when it came to blowing their own trumpets, the Roman citizens of these cities loved to commemorate any big occasion, visit, achievement or fancy new building with an inscription, and these inscriptions have provided us with the names and statuses of the towns and cities during the Roman period.

Timgad, in modern Algeria, was founded by the Emperor Trajan around 100CE as a veteran colony for Parthian veterans. Its full name, ‘COLONIA MARCIANA ULPIA TRAIANA THAMUGADI.

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And these inscriptions from modern Djemila, confirms its status, ‘COLONIA’, and the Roman name ‘CUICUL’.

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Here, this arched architectural element from a public fountain at Simitthus (Chemtou ) in Tunisia, with a dedication to the emperor Marcus Aurelius from the people of the city – ‘POPVLO SIMITTVENSI’.

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And there is this dedication set up on behalf of the people of the ‘COL[ONIA] SABRAT[A]’ (Sabratha) in Libya, to thank L. AEMILIUS QUINTUS, for his good works on behalf of the city.

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Spot the city name?

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It looks to me like this monument has been reused, as the inscribed panel looks like an earlier inscription has been chipped away. Perhaps L. Aemilius Quintus had outdone an earlier good citizen.

Other commemorations include this beautifully intact (hopefully still intact) and in-situ dedication to the Emperor Augustus from the theatre at Lepcis Magna, Libya.

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This reads, in full:

IMP(ERATORE) CAESARE DIVI F(ILIO) AUG(USTO) PONT(IFICE) MAX(IMO) TR(IBUNICIA) POT(ESTATE) XXIV
CO(N)S(ULE) XIII PATRE PATR(IAE)
ANNOBAL ORNATOR PATRIAE AMATOR CONCORDIAE 
FLAMEN SUFES PRAEF(ECTUS) SACR(ORUM) HIMILCHONIS TAPAPI F(ILIUS) RUFUS 
D(E)S(UA) P(ECUNIA) FAC(IENDUM) COER(AVIT) IDEMQ(UE) DEDICAVIT

Translation:

When Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the deified (Caesar), chief priest, was ()holding tribunician power for the twenty-fourth time, consul for the thirteenth, father of the country, Annobal, adorner of his country, lover of concord, flamen, sufete, in charge of sacred things, son of Himilcho Tapapius Rufus, saw to the construction at his own expense and also dedicated it.

So the building has been, quite properly, dedicated to the Emperor, but Annobal, the man who stumped up the cash, also gets his big-up, “adorner of his country, lover of concord, flamen, sufete, in charge of sacred things, son of Himilcho Tapapius Rufus”. And just to emphasize that ‘lover of concord’ bit,

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As the Roman administration established new, and extended existing trade and communications networks across Africa, road signs and distance markers increasingly became a feature. Here are three examples, the first from near Simithus (Chemtou) in Tunisia, and the second found on the road from Oea (Tripoli) to Fezzan, but currently in the National Museum of Antiquities, Tripoli, Libya, and the third from Cuicul (Djemila) in Algeria.

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The other thing that Romans liked to commemorate was themselves. Grave markers are an important source of information about individuals living, especially, in the towns and cities. There are loads of these at various sites (I was going to say ‘hundreds’ but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s ‘thousands’). We have to be a little bit careful with these because, in the first place, the wording on grave markers can be quite formulaic. We still see “rest in peace”, “went to sleep” on many gravestones now and these kinds of standard phrases were also common in the past. Secondly, the wording on gravestones is not necessarily decided by the deceased person themselves (although it sometimes does seem to be). Gravestones are, for obvious reasons, set up by those people surviving the deceased; family members, friends, etc., and they can sometimes say as much about those people as about the deceased person.

With that in mind, here’s a “rest in peace” inscription from Hadrumentum (Sousse in Tunisia), dedicated to the Christians, ‘CHRISTIANI CIVES HADRUMENTINI FRATRIBUS‘ interred in one of the four large catacombs of the city. Can you pick out ‘DORMIUNT IN PACE’?

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Inside the catacombs each burial niche could have had its own personal dedication with some being more formal than others. This fragment of a scratched dedication survives in-situ.

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While this complete, and much smarter, inscription has been removed to the Sousse Museum.

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The presence of the group inscription seems to suggest a strong shared identity as Christians alongside their individual and familial identities.

My other favourite memorial is this carved and inscribed, in Greek, tombstone from Ptolemias, in eastern Libya.

The grave marker of Hermes the gladiator

This is the memorial to the gladiator, Hermes, ‘ЕΡМНϹ‘. He is shown in his ‘stage’ costume as a Retiarius; a lightly-armed gladiator who carried a trident and net. The ‘net-fighter’ made up for his lack of armour and heavy weaponry by being quick and agile, so our ЕΡМНϹ reflects some of the attributes of the divine Hermes – fast, lithe and cunning. Protector of athletes and as tricky as you like.  The inscription tells us that he won eight of his bouts but he seems to have died in the ninth. Still, he must have made a few bob otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to pay of this lovely tombstone.

Many military roles survive, but in the case of this one you can see that some references have been erased.

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These are references pertaining to the Third Legion Augusta, which was stationed at Lambaesis in modern Algeria. Its name has been erased because it backed the losing side in one of the many succession squabbles that went on during the Empire (the side they backed was, arguably, the ‘right’ side, but the winners get to write the histories, eh?).

With Roman culture came an increase in urban living. That’s not to say that North Africa didn’t already have its own cities before the Romans. It did. Many of the cities we may now think of as Roman had their origins much earlier, either as Pheonician or Numidian towns and cities. However, Roman culture did push an idea of urbanization which meant that more and more people lived in closer and closer proximity. This lifestyle necessitated a greater emphasis on personal security and one manifestation of this was the practice of people writing their names on their personal possessions. Here are two pot-sherds from the museum at Timgad, Algeria.

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We see examples of this on military sites in Britain, where large numbers of men (it is usually men) find themselves living in close proximity and want to prevent their stuff from getting nicked. The inscriptions are usually of the ‘ This bowl belongs to…’ type, but they do vary.

Most of these inscriptions we’ve seen so far have been in Latin, with a little bit of Greek thrown in, but here are a few bilingual inscriptions and inscriptions in scripts which I can even begin to decipher.

To start, I’ll go back to that dedication at the theatre at Lepcis. Here’s a closer look at some of the text. The bottom 2 lines are written in Neo-Punic and are a literal translation of the Latin above.

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Here’s some more Neo-Punic. This is a building dedication of the Forum at Lepcis Magna, Libya, to  the Emperor Claudius.

Building dedication of the Forum to Claudius

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Look down at the bottom of the stela.

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These few lines of Neo-Punic basically repeat what the Latin says (you can see the transcriptions and translations in the IRT site). This shows just how compact a script Neo-Punic is compared to Latin. It’s a semitic language and the inscribed form has no vowels.

This stone, now in the Archaeological Museum in Algiers, is written in a local script, Numidian? Berber Tifinagh?  Anyway, I have no idea what it says.

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There is also this stone from Chemtou in Tunisia, written in Libyco-Berber. The museum has a handy guide to the script which, to be honest, hasn’t made me any wiser.

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And so, to bring the epigraphic habit up to date…

(or almost up to date. Obviously this sort of thing is no longer de rigeur in Libya)

The Colonel. Pre-2011, Libyan towns, cities and highways were peppered with billboard posters like this one, commemorating the revolution of 1969, which brought Colonel Ghaddafi to power.

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Some more recent political sloganeering in Tunisia.

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And a final word from football-mad Algeria.

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* I must confess that I am one of those near-illiterates who can pick out names and the ‘this is mine’ and ‘I did this’ stuff, but I’ve had help for this post from the brilliant ‘The Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania‘ website created by King’s College, and also the scarily extensive Epigraphic Database Heidelberg.

NB. I’ve been a bit rubbish at putting all the references in for these inscriptions (with links to the appropriate website) as I’ve been going along, but I’m working on it so if you’re particularly interested in one of them, do check back, as I’ll add in as many of them as  I can find as quickly as I can.

Rome in Africa: Africa in Rome – Reuse, recycle and renew.

Anyone who has ever been to, or near, a Roman site anywhere in the world, will have noticed that there is always a certain level of recycling in evidence. Sometimes pre-Roman material is recycled in the construction of Roman sites. Sometimes material is reused and recycled during the period of Roman occupation. Frequently Roman sites are used as quarries, with material taken to build later structures (have a look at the Wallquest project, mapping material taken from Hadrian’s Wall (and other places) and used to build churches in the Tyne Valley).

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The particular history of a region can determine how, and why, material is reused. Sometimes some external threat necessitates the reorganisation of space within a city. Sometimes a changing economic situation results in old structures being dismantled and new ones built. Depopulation, war, famine, negative factors, can result in changes to the urban landscape, but equally, these can be the result of  improvements in the fortunes of a city.

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At a number of North African sites we can see this kind of structure.

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These are fortresses built by the Byzantines, often using recycled material from the Roman towns and cities on, or in which they sit. These fortresses were often thrown up very quickly in response to the various crises of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This one at Madauros, was constructed in a hurry in response to the threat from the Numidian tribes attacking the town.

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Although the building itself is sound, the stonework is a bit hotch-potch, with a whole variety of stone sizes used in one wall. When you’re in a hurry any decent piece of stone will do. All of this stonework has been taken from buildings in the pre-existing town but some of the reused pieces are pretty obvious.

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Some are slightly more subtle, but they’re there if you look.

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In Gafsa, Tunisia, there are two pools at the corner of the casbah, fed by nearby hot springs.  I understand that changes to the oasis irrigation methods have resulted in the water supply to the pools being cut off. When I visited, they were empty, but when they were full the local boys had great fun jumping and diving from the steps.

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They’re constructed from good Roman ashlar blocks, but these are certainly reused, as a closer examination reveals  that some of the blocks are a little awry. These are fragments of inscriptions which are, in themselves, important as the fragments reveal the existence, somewhere in the town, of a nymphaeum dedicated to Neptune, and that by the time of Hadrian, Gafsa (Roman Capsa) was no longer a civitas  but became a municipium in Trajan’s reign.

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All Change

As well as Roman building material being reused in antiquity, sometimes whole buildings are reused, their function changed to suit the changing times or, perhaps, new populations.

At Tipasa, on the Algerian coast, Roman homes were converted in the Byzantine period, into shops and storehouses.

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These large amphorae sunk into the floor of the old houses would have held commodities such as olive oil, salted fish or grain.

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This is the theatre-amphitheatre at the Temple of Apollo in Cyrene, Libya.

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This was originally a Hellenistic theatre with a semi-circular orkestra (dancing floor), but was altered in the Roman period into an oval amphitheatre**. This actually took some doing because the site is on the edge of an escarpment.

This is an aerial photograph showing the site, in which the foundations of the Greek theatre building (scaene) and orkestra are clearly visible, running across the later oval-shaped amphitheatre.

Temple of Apollo Cyrene

http://ghn.globalheritagefund.com/uploads/library/doc_443.pdf 

This, slightly later, site adaptation can be seen in the Village of Bled el-Haddar in the oasis of Tozeur in Tunisia. The village itself is pretty unremarkable, sited in part of the palmery a short walk from Tozeur town centre, but the one feature that might interest us here is the minaret of the small local mosque.

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It’s built on the foundations of a Roman tower. I’ve no idea what the original structure on the site might have been. Perhaps a watch tower, or even a tower tomb, but there isn’t much left of it. Still, there’s enough to be able to spot the entirely different stonework involved and this represents the scant remains of the Roman town of Tusuros.

Ancient and Modern

Many of North Africa’s modern cities were established on or near the sites of ancient cities and reused Roman material also crops up around these cities. Ancient material incorporated into the fabric of modern life. All over cites, you can see Roman columns. They’re everywhere around the casbahs of Kairouan and Tunis.

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Some have even been repainted.

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At Kairouan in Tunisia, established in the 7th century, one of the country’s most important Muslim sites, the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba has been constructed using more than 500 columns brought from Roman sites including Sbeïtla, Hadrumetum and Chemtou and from as far away as Carthage.

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Going round the courtyard, you can see columns of different heights, made from a whole variety of materials and with different column capitals.

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Inside the prayer hall are more. Note all the different heights.

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Other recycled Roman elements in the mosque include these lintels, used to create an attractive door surround.

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And this large column base, which has been reused as a well-head.

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The pipes and pumps are modern, of course, but the grooves around the column base are wear evidence of the ropes used to haul up buckets in earlier times.

Similarly, in the macellum at Lepcis Magna, Libya, this market table shows clear signs of use as a well cover. The deep grooves are, again, signs of wear made by the rope pulling over the stone.

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At Madauros there is also some quite ‘interesting’, and considerably later reuse of Roman stonework.

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Many of the grave markers recovered by French archaeologists excavating the site in the 1930s were used to embellish the wall running alongside the main street. While this does allow a good view of the stones, that view is pretty distorted.   For one thing, not all of the stones would have originally been set in an upright position. The second and third from the left (eg) would have been laid flat on the ground, as they both have bowl-shaped indentations designed to receive libations.

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This practice of reuse is visible around the site, as the wall of what will be the new on-site museum also contains reused Roman grave stones and building blocks.

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Someone also went further in their recycling zeal as a careful examination of the grave markers reveals that while they may all be Roman stonework, they weren’t all originally grave markers.

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This one (above) is a column base which has been upturned and crudely inscribed in order to give it the appearance of a Roman grave marker. Whether this was done in antiquity or (much) later, I don’t know (I suspect the latter) but either way, how odd!

We often frown upon people who treat ancient sites as quarries and builders merchants, but at many sites and in many areas this reuse then forms a revealing part of the continuing story of those sites.

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* This area of pavement can be seen at Carthage, Tunisia. It’s been made from little pieces of broken inscriptions.

** There were actually several phases of alteration to the theatre-amphitheatre at Cyrene, chiefly in the construction of the scaenae and the seating (cavea).